It's fair to say that there's a lot of advice targeted at pregnant people (a lot), especially when it comes to nutrition and dietary intake.
This makes sense — everyone wants to have a healthy pregnancy — but it can be difficult to weed out fact from fiction at times.
It may not be news to you that protein is an important macronutrient during pregnancy. But how much protein is enough?
Do supplements like powders provide the same benefits as protein from food sources?
We've taken the time to review the research and expert opinions to help you feel more informed moving forward.
Why is protein so important during pregnancy?
Protein is important during all stages of life as proteins are comprised of essential 'building blocks' called amino acids.
The body uses these amino acids to build and repair muscles, as well as to create hormones and enzymes.
But, protein is even more important during pregnancy as these proteins and amino acids directly contribute to the baby's growth.
A paper published in the medical journal Advances in Nutrition highlights the importance of protein during pregnancy, which is described as an 'exceptional stage of life defined by rapid growth and development'.
Within just a few weeks of conception, the body's protein metabolism starts making adjustments to support foetal growth and development.
The paper highlights that protein deposits made in maternal and foetal tissues increase throughout pregnancy, with the majority occurring in the third trimester.
So, from the start of conception, the body starts using protein to help build that baby! (Our words, not theirs.)
This shows how important it is for pregnant women to consume adequate protein for their own bodies as well as for the wee one inside them.
What are the protein requirements for a pregnant person?
Dietary reference intakes vary among different countries, but in Australia, the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for pregnant women is around 60 grams of protein per day.
To put this in context, the RDI for a non-pregnant woman is around 46 grams of protein per day, so while an increase is advised and backed by clinical nutrition, it shouldn't be difficult to ensure you're getting enough protein (especially if you're already eating a healthy diet from a variety of food groups).
For a vegetarian diet, most plant foods are labelled 'incomplete' as they do not contain all nine proteins.
The good news is they can be consumed together which often creates a complete protein source, such as natural peanut butter on whole grain toast.
There is also limited evidence to suggest that a certain maternal dietary pattern before and during pregnancy is associated with a reduced risk of gestational diabetes mellitus.
The protective dietary patterns are indicative of a healthy and balanced food intake: lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, protein, whole grains, legumes and interestingly, lower red meat intake.
Vego pals rejoice and keep eating that plant-based protein.
You can expect to gain body weight during pregnancy (in fact, you would want to) so adding protein sources within a nutrient-dense diet can help ensure you're hitting your protein targets.
If you are concerned about your individual nutritional intake or concerns around sufficient protein needs speak to your GP or reach out to a dietitian.
Is protein powder safe during pregnancy?
In general: yes. Many people choose to consume protein powder when pregnant as a convenient way to top up their intake, especially if pregnancy-related nausea strikes.
A quick protein smoothie can be a great way to ensure you're maintaining a balanced diet.
There are many varieties out there so if you are ever in doubt or considering a protein supplement you can always chat to your GP for specific, personalised advice for your situation and needs.
Kin's Essential Protein Powder is designed for pregnancy and to be safe for mums and the baby. it uses high quality whey protein concentrate to provide 22.4g protein per serve so you can get the nutrients you need.
Do all protein powders contain the same ingredients?
Not all protein powders are the same. Protein supplements come in many different varieties, consistencies and flavours.
Some contain added vitamins, minerals or carbohydrates, whereas others are simply pure protein.
Most available protein powders fall into one of the following types, all of which are safe to consume during pregnancy:
Whey protein (or whey protein isolate)
Whey and casein are the two main proteins in milk and are often found in protein supplements.
As they are derived from milk, anyone lactose-intolerant or sensitive to lactose should avoid these ones.
Whey protein is popular among people who engage in strength training as it's typically pure protein powder with little else, making it a handy staple for a post-exercise protein shake or for anyone wanting to increase their protein intake without accidentally ingesting other ingredients (more on those later on!).
This is a plant-based protein powder made from grinding hemp seeds into powder. Many people following a vegan or vegetarian diet consume hemp products and this is also safe to consume during pregnancy.
Like hemp, pea protein is one of the plant proteins, typically made from yellow split peas. Pea protein is generally high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Collagen is found in the connective tissue, bones, skin, organs as well as your blood vessels. This one is not for vegetarians as it's sourced from meat.
Rice protein powder
Another kind of plant protein, rice protein powder is usually made from brown rice and are a vegan protein powder.
What to look for when choosing a pregnancy protein supplement
Just like all supplements — whether they be in powder, tablet, gummy or capsule form — protein supplements can vary drastically in their ingredient list and with regards to nutritional benefits.
When considering a protein powder during pregnancy, it's important to be mindful of the following factors:
- Soy protein: There is limited evidence to suggest soy intake may increase the risk of developing gestational diabetes. In addition, soy may actually interfere with protein absorption.
- Sugar: No, sugar isn't evil, but it's worth keeping an eye on sugar intake for optimal health. It's common to experience symptoms like increased fatigue or nausea during pregnancy, so you don't want to add a blood sugar crash to the mix.
- Caffeine: Some protein powders contain caffeine which may be a short-term boost for some, but not great for a pregnant person. The current advice recommends limiting caffeine intake to a few cups of coffee or tea each day.
Are there any risks when consuming protein powders during pregnancy?
It's worth keeping in mind that relying on protein powders as your primary source of protein could mean you are accidentally ingesting too much protein, especially if it is a pure protein powder, which may counteract any health benefits and in fact be harmful.
In addition, a low carbohydrate intake is not recommended for most people (despite what certain extreme diet trends may declare, we need carbs for brain function, as well as a million other bodily processes) but especially for pregnant people.
With this in mind, you want to ensure you aren't accidentally forgetting to add carbohydrates and fats to your diet as well.
Adding protein smoothies to your diet is great, as long as you're mindful of continuing to eat balanced and nutritious meals outside of that, too.
Can pregnant women eat protein bars?
Generally speaking, absolutely — many protein bars are made from similar ingredients to protein powders.
A key difference is that due to the structure of a 'bar', there may be more binding agents like sugar or artificial sweeteners that can either increase your sugar intake or upset your stomach (many people report digestion issues with artificial sweeteners or artificial flavouring).
If you're feeling particularly inclined, you could try making your own protein bars with protein powder or protein-rich foods like dates, nut butters, almond meal or seeds. (Or, ask a loved one to whip you up a batch because you're pregnant and deserve treats.)
What's the key takeaway?
Pregnancy can be a wonderful, beautiful experience. It can also be a stressful time when every stranger on the internet — and on the street — may bark at you with unsolicited medical advice.
The takeaway is that moderation, once again, is key. There are enough people or resources that may make you feel shame during pregnancy or during parenthood. We want to remind you that mental health is equally as important as physical health.
Grabbing a protein shake or meal replacement bar between meals? Go for it. And if in doubt, remember to check in with your doctor.
Photo credit: Getty Images